The history of the world in the last two millennia is inseparable from the person of Jesus Christ and the rise of the community of his followers – the church. The church’s faith and Christian belief and practice have been articulated and advanced more by Paul than any other church figure.
In astrophysicist Michael Hart’s book The 100 – A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History Paul is ranked sixth after just Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Isaac Newton, and Muhammad. However, others would dismiss Paul’s influence and he doesn’t even get a mention in Michael Pollard’s 100 Greatest Men. There has been a constant drip through history of powerful personalities wanting to appear tall by diminishing Paul, and liberals have long sought to drive a wedge between Paul with his epistles and Jesus with the Gospels. American President Thomas Jefferson wrote that Paul was a 'dupe and imposter... the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus'. English novelist and essayist George Bernard Shaw described Paul’s doctrines as 'a monstrous imposition upon Jesus'. Walter Bauer, the nineteenth-century German father of liberal theology, claimed, 'Paul was the only arch-heretic known to the apostolic age.' Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Antichrist gave Paul the title of 'dysangelist', regarding him as the counterfeiter, the herald of bad news, 'the very opposite of the bearer of good tidings'.1
But those close to Jesus and close to Paul saw no such dissonance between the doctrine and ministry of Jesus on the one hand and Paul on the other. In Galatians 2:7–10 the Jerusalem apostles, James, John, and Peter – appointed by Jesus himself – welcomed Paul in friendship, honoured God’s grace upon him, encouraged him in his apostolic mission to the Gentiles, and exhorted him to remember the poor!
Later Peter would commend Paul’s writings, his epistles, already being shared among the church congregations, as being Scriptures, understood as sacred inspired writings (2 Peter 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:16).
Paul was undoubtedly an intellectual giant, tutored under the famed Jewish lawyer Gamaliel. Fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, with a mastery of logic and language, he authored half the New Testament epistles. Paul was a member of the most élite and most devout sect within Judaism – the Pharisees. He was a passionate man, before his conversion zealously opposing Christianity, and then after his conversion zealously promoting Christ. He was an influential man – his presence and preaching won converts and caused riots, and he upset both Jewish and Roman authorities. He was also a people’s person, at ease debating with rabbis in Jerusalem, with scholars in Athens, with washerwomen at the river bank, jailers in prison, governors, and kings. And he was a courageous man, one who endured rejection, derision, suffering, torture, and ultimately beheading – all because of his desire to live for, and promote the name of, Jesus.
No wonder on one occasion when in Ephesus, as the sons of Sceva attempted to exorcize a demonized man, they employed Paul’s name as they commanded the demon to leave 'in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches'; but what is remarkable is the response of the demons, as recalled by Luke: 'Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?' (Acts 19:15). What an extraordinary thing for a demon to have heard of a preacher! No doubt the hosts of hell had been alerted to this man of God who could expose and expel them in the power of the Spirit of Jesus.
In this chapter we shall consider four nouns that Paul ascribes to himself – his name, his duty, his call, and his purpose.
William Shakespeare famously asked, 'What’s in a name?' Well, in Paul’s name we have the whole gospel in microcosm! For Paul had previously been named Saul, until that fateful day when he met Christ on the road to Damascus. Knocked off his horse (according to later tradition), he had some sense knocked into him. And he realized that the One he had been persecuting was the Lord of heaven and earth. Saul had once been an assassin. He had held the coats of the murderers when they were stoning Stephen, giving his vote of approval to their actions. Off of his own bat, he had sought from the high priest official letters to have any Christians in synagogues arrested, and he was about that very business when he was arrested by Jesus (Acts 22:1–8).
We do not know why Saul took the name Paul – there is no evidence of Jesus giving it to him during the encounter – but the tradition of renaming after an encounter with God is very strong in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter. A new creation, with a new destiny and a new identity, needs a new name. The name Saul stood for 'persecutor of Christ', but now Paul would be the 'prosecutor for Christ': no longer sent to kill Christians, but now sent to make Christians; no longer the man most feared by Christians, but now the most feared Christian.
Saul was a Hebrew name meaning 'asked for from God' and his conversion is no doubt the result of many prayers asking God either to save him or remove him. But he is renamed Paul from the Latin word for 'small'. No longer Pharisee Saul, the despiser of Gentile dogs, he is now Paul – for the sake of the gospel romanized, latinized, gentilized – apostle to Gentiles, a humble, little man. I like to think it was Paul who took this name for himself, taking the name in the language of the Gentiles he formerly despised, a name meaning 'diminutive'. This was the act of a broken man, a born-again man, a humbled man, a man with a new vision: to take the gospel to the Roman empire, not to preserve Temple worship in and for Israel. The gospel had worked a complete revolution. The change from Saul to Paul was a change not just of name but also of nature. It is a 180-degree turn, a volte-face, an about-turn; it is true repentance.
The change of name tells us that Jesus’ grace extends to befriend even his sworn enemies. No one, not one, no matter how apparently far from God, or hostile to the gospel, or steeped in sin, is beyond the name-changing, life-transforming power of Christ. The Victorian preacher C. H. Spurgeon, speaking of the power of the gospel to transform, said:
This change is radical – it gives us a new nature, it makes us love what we hated and hate what we loved; it sets us on a new road; it makes our habits different; it makes us different in private and different in public.2
For centuries converts at baptism have been given a 'Christian' name, one that signifies the new life that God has brought and the transformed life God has wrought in the individual. If God gave you a new name, what would it say about his work in you?
In his encounter with Paul on the Damascus road Jesus said, 'I have appeared to you... to appoint you as a servant and witness' (Acts 26:16). Paul never forgot what he was called to be: first and foremost a servant of Jesus. The Greek term is doulos, which generally referred to a bond slave. The ancient world was dominated by a culture of slavery. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the whole Roman empire, and 40 per cent of those living in Italy, were slaves. But Jewish culture stood out among its neighbours, for in Israel slavery was abhorred. Israel had no slaves in the Roman sense, only contracted servants who at the end of seven years were to be set free to return home. However, a provision in the Law given by God says that those servants who 'love' their master may of their own volition choose to stay; if so, they were to be taken to a wooden door and have their ear pierced with an awl (Exodus 21:5–6), the blood on their face ratifying the union with their master. We must not miss the prophetic typology: Master Jesus was pierced against the wood, his head bloody, serving the world in love. And Paul willingly becomes a slave to love. A slave is there for his master, puts their wish and will before his own. Paul lived to serve his Lord.
As a young lady my granny was a Norden-trained nanny, responsible for minor members of the royal family. Far from regarding being 'in service' as demeaning, she regarded it as a great honour. To be a servant of Jesus is the highest honour this universe affords. Blaise Pascal, the seventeeth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and God-lover, wrote:
There are only three types of people; those who have found God and serve him; those who have not found God and seek him; and those who live not seeking , or finding him. The first are rational and happy; the second unhappy and rational; the third foolish and unhappy.3
Paul had found and served God; he was certainly rational and blisteringly happy.
How may we apply this to ourselves? First, we are called to serve Jesus. There is a tendency among some to think Jesus is their personal fairy godmother, waving a magic wand to all their wishes. Or perhaps he is their servant, running at their beck and call, there to meet their needs on demand. Not so. Like Paul, we exist to serve our Saviour. And in our prayers, how about not presenting him with a list but occasionally starting with: 'Lord, what can I do for you today?'
Secondly, Paul’s first duty is to serve Jesus and only after that to serve Christ’s body – the church. Some Christians may not assume God exists for their benefit, but they certainly think that the church and its ministers do. They are there to serve them, cater for their needs, wipe their noses, jump when shouted for. Many become dependent on their ministers, and ministers can become co-dependent on them, needing to be needed. No; the role of a minister is to serve Christ, and only secondarily to serve the church, and that service is intended to produce mature disciples who themselves live to serve Jesus.
Paul was called to be an apostle. He did not take this office to himself; he did not apply or interview for it; it was vocation, a charism, a divine summons.
He was set apart, 'a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel' (Acts 9:15).
No one can take this apostolic priestly title to themselves, or even have it conferred by others. It is a divine office with a divine sanction. In Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul is clear that apostleship is God-given, an anointing and appointing by the resurrected Christ through the Spirit. This is not a natural talent harnessed by the church, as some modern church movements and thinkers propose; it is not latent 'entrepreneurialism'; Richard Branson and Bill Gates are not unconverted apostles! The Greek noun apostolos simply means 'one who is sent'. An apostle is a man on a mission from God, who proclaims the good news of God – he is a herald, an ambassador, a pioneer. Apostle is as apostle does. Note that Paul puts 'servant' before 'apostle', thus defining the character of an apostle. There is no self-promoting pride, no power play, no preening, but service for his Saviour. Next notice how Paul puts 'gospel' after 'apostle' (Romans 1:1b), defining the focus of the apostle as one framed by gospel ministry.
Apostles found churches and ground churches in the faith. The church is built on the doctrinal foundations laid by the proclamation of the gospel and explanation of the faith given by the apostle. The first Jerusalem apostles were devoted to teaching doctrine, to prayer and the ministry of word (Acts 2:42; 6:4). Most of Paul’s ministry was not planting churches but nurturing them through teaching, for instance teaching for eighteen months in Corinth (Acts 18:11). That’s how you build a healthy and strong church – by teaching the faith. Apostles are accompanied by signs and wonders (2 Corinthians 12:12); apostles are first-hand witnesses to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:22; 4:33; 1 Corinthians 9:1); apostles are despised and rejected, the scum of the earth (1 Corinthians 4:13).
I am always wary when I hear people describe themselves as an apostle (and many do). Certainly it is de rigueur to describe oneself as apostolic. But I repeat, apostle is as apostle does – and most who claim the title exhibit none of the evidences.
Now, do not misunderstand me. I do believe in apostles, just as I believe in miracles. But let us have some integrity and, if we are going to claim the title, let us walk the talk. Paul was actually challenging the super-apostles in Corinth when he wrote that, although they were powerful in word, he would see if they had any real power when he came to visit (1 Corinthians 4:19).
What matters is apostolic success not apostolic succession. Apostolic success depends on apostolic faithfulness to the faith once delivered, and fruitfulness in lives changed, churches planted, the kingdom advancing.
An apostle is set apart for the gospel – the gospel defines the apostle. If the gospel is not central for them, they are a false apostle. And there are lots around. There were in the early church, and many of the epistles were written to counter error that had crept in through these false teachers. Paul speaks of being 'set apart'. The Greek word aphoridzo is based on the word for a horizon or demarcating line. It was a term the Pharisees used to describe themselves as set apart from the sinful world, but Paul says he is set apart for the gospel ministry.
Note Paul speaks of the gospel. There are not lots of gospels, not lots of competing truth-claims in a pot pourri of realities – just one good news, as there is one God, Lord, and Saviour. The concept of being 'set apart' is probably drawn from the Old Testament priestly office, where in the temple (set-apart place) the Levites (set-apart ministers) offered sacrifices (set-apart animals) to God (set apart from all else). Paul will further expound this theme in Romans 15:16 where Paul says he is in the priestly service of the gospel of God – offering Gentiles as sacrifices, set apart for God. This set- apart, priestly role, this New Testament apostolic ministry, is not essentially pastoral, liturgical, administrative, or even sacramental – it is a gospel ministry. The gospel is the ground of Paul’s life. As Professor James Dunn says, 'Since his conversion, the gospel had been the dominant and determinative focus of his whole life.'4
This gospel that transformed his life, he lives to give to others. Remove the gospel from Paul and we have Saul; remove the gospel from Paul and we lose half of Acts and half the New Testament! Remove the gospel from Paul and we do not have churches founded in Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Philippi, Colossae and the good news heralded throughout Asia Minor. Paul is a gospel man. Seventy- five times in his epistles he directly refers to the gospel. Paul’s worship is a response to the gospel; Paul’s identity is constituted by the gospel; Paul’s energy is spent on presenting the gospel; Paul’s writings are an explication and application of the gospel. Paul lived by the gospel and for the gospel, and he died for the gospel.
And what was his gospel? John Piper says, 'God is the Gospel'5 – his work, his ways, his will. Paul’s life and message and life message are all about God.
The ancient Greek proverb says, 'The hearts of the great can be changed.' Whether great or small, God and his gospel transform lives. Who would ever have thought the assassin Saul could be the apostle Paul? Such graces occurred then, and still do today. Who would ever have thought my friend, now named David, who was once named Abu Bakr, the son of a grand Mufti, himself a Muslim imam and doctor of Sharia law, would ever encounter Christ in a vision in a mosque at prayers, and become a preacher of the gospel to Muslims in Britain? But that is what the gospel does, for that is what God does.
This extract is taken from God is For Us © Simon Ponsonby, published by Lion Hudson.
3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670, trans. W. F. Trotter, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931, no. 257.
4. James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans, Volume 38A, 1988.
5. John Piper, “Meditations on God is the Gospel”, http://www.desiringgod. org/resource-library/books/god-is-the-gospel--2
Simon Ponsonby is Pastor of Theology at St Aldates in Oxford, England. Originally a butcher, he became an evangelist and then a minister. He is author of a number of books including 'More', and 'God is For Us'.